It started with song.
Accompanied by scores of people sitting, standing, or bending an ear in the open doorways of the Kay Centre Performance House last Friday, Haida singer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson sang a new song to open her first exhibit of visual art.
Sung in Haida language and in English, the lyrics recalled some of the ruin that colonization brought during the time of her great-grandmother, Susan Williams, who was born at Skedans and moved to Skidegate in 1896.
“She had a hand in what would have been a very different life, and she witnessed a lot in her time,” says Williams-Davidson.
She also remains a powerful force in the community.
Not only did Susan Williams raise 13 children — dozens of her descendants stood at Gidansda’s recent potlatch in Skidegate — she and the Haida Gwaii Singers recorded over 100 Haida songs before the end of her long life, at 109, to save what might have been lost.
Like her great-grandmother, who gave her the Haida name Lalaxaaygans or “beautiful sound,” Williams-Davidson has done much to keep Haida culture alive.
As a lawyer, she represented the Haida Nation at the Supreme Court of Canada. As a singer, she won a Keeper of Traditions award for rescuing ancient songs.
Her latest work, Out of Concealment: Female Supernatural Beings of Haida Gwaii, is also rooted in the deep past.
But it feels strikingly new.
Everyone who saw it first at the Haida Gwaii Museum last Friday was greeted by a gallery full of LED lightboxes, prints, animated videos, and a silk screen showing surreal images of Williams-Davidson depicting nearly three dozen Haida supernatural beings.
As Mouse Woman, Kaagan Jaad, she shelters under what looks like a giant mushroom.
As Mountain Goat Woman, Maat Jaad, she overlooks Haida Gwaii from the peak of Mount Moresby, a form-line image of herself sketched into the sky.
Designed by her husband, Robert Davidson, the form-line designs, masks, and scultpures “ghosted” into Williams-Davidson’s own images of female supernatural beings shows the abstract way they have been represented by Haida artists going back to artist Charles Edenshaw and before.
“I wanted to be able to visualize what they might look like today,” said Williams-Davidson, who along with her husband, enjoys the blend of ancient and modern art.
“What he’s told me, and what I believe as well, is that culture is something that remains relevant to us,” she said.
“Culture is never something static that remains in the past — it needs to be relevant to contemporary people.”
Islanders will recognize some of the landscapes in the background of Williams-Davidson’s surreal digital collages, such as Skincuttle Inlet, where according to Haida oral traditions, Foam Woman, Sguuluu Jaad, stepped from the sea.
Williams-Davidson gathered several such images thanks to local photographers. Many of the studio photographs of her depicting the supernaturals were done by photojournalist Farah Nosh, with costumes designed by Himikalas designer Pam Baker.
Those with an eye for detail might also spot some of Haida Gwaii’s endemic wildlife, such as the Mariposa copper butterfly, seen fluttering by Ice Woman, Kalga Jaad.
In a book that will launch this August, Wiliams-Davidson details what she has learned from ancestors, relatives, and the ethnographic record about the many female Haida supernaturals.
“That’s been the most time-consuming, because I’m a lawyer and I like detail and footnotes,” she said, laughing.
Along with the book and gallery exhibit, Williams-Davidson also has a forthcoming album, her third, that includes songs about the supernaturals.
Recorded with Chilliwack guitarist Bill Henderson and fellow musician Claire Lawrence, it was made in a similar, revitalizing spirit, recorded live off the floor.
“They don’t like to play a song the same way forever,” said Williams-Davidson. “Every take we made in the studio is different.”
Between now and December, visitors to the Haida Gwaii Museum can hear an early version of one song on the album — it’s the soundtrack to a video that shows Williams-Davidson transforming into Grizzly Bear Woman, Xuu.ajii Jaad.
Noting that Haida art often depicts beings in a state of transformation, Williams-Davidson said she feels that is where Haidas are today as indigenous people.
“We’re in this state of transformation, and where we are right now is a key part of the journey,” she said.
“It may not be perfect — Canada and Canadians’ relationship with indigenous peoples may not be perfect — but it is where we are, and there is value to acknowledging where we are to collectively move forward.”